The tweet to nowhere: protected replies

March 28, 2012

On Twitter, you can set your account to “protected” to make your tweets private. In this mode, only people you approve can see your tweets. Interestingly, this restriction now also applies to @replies and @mentions ((I’ve been told that you used to be able to see your @replies from private accounts, implying this is a recent change.)).

I don’t generally follow anybody who has a private Twitter account, mostly on principle. I can’t evaluate what they write or how often they write it, so I just let them enjoy their privacy. It had never really occurred to me how isolated these users are though - they can’t be retweeted, and the people they mention often can’t respond to what they’re saying.

So I was weirded out yesterday when I was notified that two different people were @replying me that I couldn’t see:

  • ‌@bishnu_b replied to one of my comments but I couldn’t tell. I was tipped off by a public reply to that reply.

  • ‌@canadiankelli asked me a question but I couldn’t tell. I was tipped off by my wife asking me why I didn’t respond.

I love chatting with people on Twitter, so it was disturbing to me that people were trying to contact me and getting a wall of silence. If this is happening to me, it’s happening on a huge scale to various celebrities and company accounts:

  1. I should join Twitter to interact with people.

  2. An option to make my account private? Seems prudent.

  3. Hey, there’s this @reply thing. “@my_friend Hey, let’s go for dinner!”

  4. Nice, I got a response to my message.

  5. I need to reach out to somebody I follow. “@support I have a problem, everything is broken!”

  6. What jerks, they never responded to my message.

This is horrible, since there is no feedback to the user that their messages are going into a black hole. Effectively nobody sees the message, and the user just resents being ignored. Clearly this is a problem.

Solution #1: Show @replies from private accounts

Obviously Twitter made this decision for privacy reasons - an engineer there challenged me on this issue, saying the user set their account to private for a reason, so it should stay that way. In general, erring on the side of privacy is a good call. Still, I would argue that virtually no users will @reply somebody intending it to be hidden from that person - in users’ minds, it is a directed communication.

Solution #2: Warn users that their @replies are going nowhere

Anybody would agree that a warning here is better than nothing. This is just a question of the design and engineering bandwidth to add the warning for a small subset of users. I would say that this is the least Twitter can do - a little “Warning: @bieber cannot see this message” flag.

Solution #3: Get rid of private accounts

I’m sure some at Twitter would love to just do away with protected accounts, but it’s probably not feasible for political reasons. Honestly though, what value are people getting out of posting on Twitter over Facebook if they can’t @reply most of the people they follow and can’t be retweeted? To me, the entire beauty of Twitter is the ability to follow whoever you fancy following, and the ability for others to do the same to you - coupled with mechanisms like retweets and @replies for broadening the group of people you’re communicating with.

Whatever path Twitter takes, I think they need to do something - as things stand, a lot of people are getting the cold shoulder for reasons they don’t understand.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.